Ancient Greek Music

Greek: Αρχαιο Ελληνικη μουσικη
Surviving music: 60 fragments (only 1 complete piece)
Performed at: theatres, festivals and at home
Instruments: Lyra, Kithara, barbitos, lute, syrinx and the hydraulis

The lyre depicted in  Ancient Greek Pottery.

The lyre depicted in
Ancient Greek Pottery.

Through surviving pottery, fragments of rock and papyrus we are able to get a glimpse into the music of Ancient Greece. Only 60 fragments of music have survived from ancient Greece. Fortunately, the ancient Greeks had an unambiguous alphabetical system of musical notation, therefore making it easy to read. Letters denoting specific pitches were simply written above the text of the songs.

The word music comes from the Greek word μουσικη meaning “of the muses”, the Muses being the custodians and patrons of the arts in ancient Greek mythology. Music in ancient Greece was mostlyplayed at the theatres, at both the Pythian and Olympic games, festivals (the Delphic hymns were composed for the Pythian Games in 128 BC), and at home. There were a few instruments that were played, the most popular of which was the lyra. The Kithara was the one favoured by the professional ancient Greek musicians, as was heard in the theatres. It had 7 strings and was made of wood. A more primitive version of the Kithara was the Phorminx which had 4 strings. The Barbitos was the bass version of the Lyra. There was also the 3-string fretted lute called the Pandouris and the Aulos (reed wind instrument similar to the oboe), the syrinx (pan pipes) and the the hydraulis (a keyboard instrument) were also played.

Great examples of surviving pieces of music are the Delphic Hymn to Apollo and the Epitaph of Seikilos. The Epitaph is a drinking song written by Seikilos for his wife Euterpe. It is theonly complete piece of music to have survived from Ancient Greece.

The lyrics to the song are:

While you live,
dance and sing,
be joyful:
For life is short,
And Time carries away his prize.

As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure.
For your life is short,
and time will claim its toll.


According to an article on Greece in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the original ancient Greek names for species of the octave included the following (on white keys):

B-B: Mixolydian
E-E: Dorian
A-A: Hypodorian
D-D: Phrygian
G-G: Hypophrygian
C-C: Lydian
F-F: Hypolydian

One of the great lyre players, Michael Levy from England (website: www.ancientlyre.com), hascreated several albums dedicated to the music of Ancient Greece. He explores the original compositions for the lyre. The lyre-playing tchniques he uses are all authentically based on lyre playing techniques which have survived to the present day, and which can still be heard in East Africa (the “block and strum” technique), wherby the left hand blocks specific strings, and the right hand then can strum rhythm basic chords/intervals with a plectum. Michael alternates between plectrum-plucked, guitar-like tones with his right hand, and finger-plucked, harp-like tones with his left hand – this creates the effect of 2 instruments from the one lyre. He derived this style of playing from surviving illustrations of Kithara players, which clearly shows the Kithara being simultaneusly plucked with a plectrum, and also plucked with open fingers of the left hand. This is as close sounding to ancient Greek music as it can get.

Purchase Michael’s albums from the itunes store here:
1) Apollo’s Lyre
2) The Ancient Greek Modes
3) The Ancient Greek Lyre

Source: http://ancientlyre.com/

“Ancient Greek Music – The Lyre of Classical Antiquity” by Michael Levy :

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